Home > A Merciful Silence (Mercy Kilpatrick #4)(9)

A Merciful Silence (Mercy Kilpatrick #4)(9)
Author: Kendra Elliot

Maybe I should be neighborly and give him a warning.

Truman put on his hat and walked out into the rain.

“We’ve got a lead.”

“I’m listening,” Mercy told Jeff as she drove away from Britta Vale’s home, where she’d silenced her phone for her interview. There’d been three missed calls and two texts from Jeff.

“I’m sending you the address. There’s a family missing. It’s possible they’ve been missing for months.”

“Sounds like a good lead.”

“Deschutes County Sheriff’s Department is already at the home. It’s not far from where you’re at.”

“On my way.” Mercy pulled over and plugged the address from his text into her GPS. She could be there in twenty minutes. She frowned at the map, surprised that someone lived in the desolate location. She would have expected it to be only rock and shrubs and wildlife.

Twenty minutes later she put her Tahoe into four-wheel drive to get through the mud. No one had done maintenance on the private road in ages. She rocked and bounced her way down into a valley, crossing her fingers that she wouldn’t get stuck. Fresh tracks assured her that the county vehicles had made it. Moments later she found the home.

If Britta Vale’s home was welcoming, this home advised people to stay away. The house looked abused and exhausted.

Three broken-down trucks sat in front of the home. Two still had wheels; none had windshields. The front of the home hid behind overgrown bushes. It had a sagging roof, and Mercy spotted several squatty outbuildings with pens to the left of the house. One she assumed was a chicken coop, and the others looked as if they would hold small farm animals. She parked next to a Deschutes County vehicle and slid out. A familiar figure stepped out of the home and Mercy recognized Deschutes County Detective Evan Bolton.

Mercy pulled up her hood in the misting rain and went to greet Bolton. The detective always looked as if he’d just wrapped up a difficult interview. He had a seen-it-all gaze in his brown eyes, even though he was a bit younger than Mercy.

She shook his hand. “What did you find?” she asked him.

“Something happened here, but who knows how long ago. There’s a lot of old dried blood in the bedrooms, and all their stuff is still here, but the place is deserted. I assume this family didn’t move away to a new city.”

Not with dried blood left behind.

“What’s the name?”

“Last name is Hartlage. Richard and Corrine Hartlage own the home.”

“Kids?”

“Judging by the pictures inside, they have one young girl and a teenage girl.”

The small skull flashed in Mercy’s brain.

“Relatives? Neighbors?”

“We’re searching for relatives. I sent a deputy to the closest homes, which are a good mile or two away, to get some information about this family.”

“Vehicle registrations?”

“There’s a missing Chevy Suburban. Fifteen years old. I put out a BOLO on it.” Bolton pointed at the three old trucks. “None of these are registered.”

“Not surprised.” The silence of the property was overwhelming. “Are there animals?”

“The doors to the pens and the buildings were open when we got there,” said Bolton. “I can tell there had been chickens in one pen and other animals in the other buildings . . . There are bales of hay and some feed bins.”

“Someone let the animals out. I guess that’s good.” Mercy turned in a circle as she eyed the remote location. “I assume they’re totally off the grid out here? No utilities to pay or fall behind on?”

“Nothing. Self-sufficient.”

“Does it appear the home has been empty a long time?”

“Come take a look.”

Mercy followed Bolton up the steps. “I think more than four people lived here,” Bolton said. “You’ll see what I mean.”

A smell of mildew and old dust pervaded. “Was that window open like it is now?” Mercy gestured at a large one in the living room. Water had stained the wall and wood floor below the window. The boards had started to curl.

“Yes,” said Bolton. “There are a few windows open. The wood floor is saturated over there.”

“Not surprising after the storms we’ve had.”

She took a quick pass through the kitchen, noting the layer of dust on the counter and the few dishes in the sink. “Did you look in the fridge?”

“It’s pretty nasty.”

“I’ll take your word for it.” Her stomach was already tight at the sight of the empty home. The weather must have been better when the family was last here. It hadn’t been warm enough to leave windows open since September. A crime scene tech with a camera in hand moved into the living room from the hallway. He nodded at Mercy and started taking photos in the kitchen.

She followed Bolton down the hall and glanced in the small bathroom. A holder with five toothbrushes sat on the counter. The next doorway was to a tiny bedroom. Pink walls. Old white furniture. My Little Pony sheets on one twin bed, plain blue on the other. Clothes and Barbies on the floor.

Rust-colored stains on the pillows.

Mercy took three steps to the My Little Pony bed. The covers were pushed back, and a reddish-brown trail was smeared from the pillow to the floor. Then it stopped. It was the same for the blue bed.

“He put them in something.”

“It’s the same in all the rooms. The blood trails abruptly stop.”

The next bedroom appeared to belong to the mother and father. Men’s and women’s clothing hung in the closet. The queen-size bed had dried blood on both pillows. Both sides of the bed had bloody stains down the sides of the mattress and box springs to the floor, where it had pooled in the carpet. No blood trail to the door, but blood spatter went up the walls and across the ceiling, showing how the killer had raised and swung the weapon.

Mercy stared at the blood patterns.

They were bludgeoned.

“The other bedroom is similar,” said Bolton. He led her to the last room.

This room was slightly smaller, and the bed was the same size as the last one. It also had a bloodstain on the pillow. Mercy checked the small closet. Adult male clothing. “Another man lived here?” she asked, thinking of the second male skull. “Did you find a wallet?”

“We haven’t found IDs anywhere in the home. No wallets with credit cards or anything. I suspect he took them.”

“He may have wanted to use the credit cards. Jeez. He could have been charging up a storm for months and no one would know.”

“No doubt the cards were frozen once no payments showed up.”

“Good point. But he still had a wide window of opportunity.” Mercy made a mental note to check the Hartlages’ credit reports.

“Think this is related to yesterday’s discovery up on March Mountain?” Bolton asked.

“It’s a good possibility. Same number of victims. Obviously they’ve been gone from this home for a long time.”

“The remains you found were skeletal. How long does that take?”

“Depends on the environment they were left in.” Mercy took a deep breath. “So far there doesn’t appear to be any clothing or even shoes with the bodies we found. Either they were stripped before they were buried in the culvert, or possibly the bones were recently put in there.”

Bolton scowled. “They were dumped somewhere else first and then moved to the culvert?”

“I’m speculating out loud. I know they can test the bones to analyze the soil they were buried in, and then they can analyze the soil and debris in the culvert. I’m curious to find out if they’re the same.”

Bolton stared at her for a long moment. “You don’t think they were in that culvert for very long.”

“We have to consider that as an option. Why hadn’t they already washed away? We had rain last fall and this spring.”

“But I heard the water was flowing around the culvert. Maybe it’s been doing that for months.”

“True. This is just a theory bouncing around in my brain.” She studied the blood on the pillow. “You said there were some family pictures?”

“This way.”

On a small table in the living room were six framed photos. A young girl with dark hair clutching a white-and-tan cat smiled in one. Another frame held a school photo of a teenage girl. The others showed the girls with their parents.

“What’s her name?” Mercy picked up the picture of the young girl. She was missing two top teeth, but her wide smile proved she didn’t care.

“I found some coloring book pages in the pink bedroom with the name Alison signed on them. I haven’t figured out the teenager’s name yet.”

The tiny skull suddenly had a potential name. No longer would Mercy think of it as “the child.” Now it was Alison.

Maybe.

“Dammit.” She set down the picture and looked away. It’d been easier to think about the bones when they were nameless.

“I think we found the murder weapon outside.”

“Saving the most important evidence for last?” Mercy asked.

“I like to make an impact.” Bolton’s smile didn’t reach his eyes.

They went out the front door and around the side of the home. In the tall grass next to the home lay a large hammer. It’d been washed by the rain and probably frozen by the snow over the last few months. Will there be any fingerprints?

“Awfully cocky to leave it behind,” Mercy murmured.

“I took it as a big fuck you,” said Bolton.

“What kind of hammer is it? I’ve never seen a head like that before.” Two-thirds of the head was a solid cylinder shape before it narrowed to a point at one end.

“I don’t know either. I’ve got an evidence team on the way,” Bolton said. “I’m not touching it until then.”

“I want the photos from this scene as soon as possible.”

   
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